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NASA Seeks to Unlock Secrets of Our Solar System with Mission to Jupiter

NASA Seeks to Unlock Secrets of Our Solar System with Mission to Jupiter

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Jupiter is key to understanding the formation of our solar system

Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, plays a major role in the scientific communities' journey to better understand the origin of the universe.

We can’t understand the origin of the solar system – and how Earth came about – without understanding how Jupiter formed.
— Mission Juno NASA Webpage

The common theories about the formation of our solar system all begin with the collapse of a massive cloud of gas and dust, which formed the infant stage of the sun. Jupiter is made of mostly helium and hydrogen, leading the scientific community to the assumption that Jupiter must of formed early in the event to capture the materials following the sun's creation. 

While a few theories about Jupiter's formation exists, many questions about the storm-covered planet remain unanswered.  NASA's Mission Juno seeks to answer a few of those questions to reveal more about the mysterious planet.

Facts About the Mysterious Planet

In perspective: The sizes of Earth and Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

  • Jupiter is 318 times the mass of Earth
  • The "Great Red Spot" on Jupiter's surface is a storm about 12,400 miles long and 7,500 miles wide
  • The effective temperature on Jupiter is -223.6 fahrenheit / -148 degrees celsius 
  • Ganymede, Jupiter's moon, is the largest moon in the solar system
  • The planet has a fluid interior; no solid surfaces exist 

Mission Juno

Mission Juno launched on August 5, 2011 aiming to further the study of the storm-ridden planet Jupiter. After a 5-year trip through our solar system, Juno reached Jupiter on July 4, 2016, and plans to operate until July 2018. The planet's distinctive layer of clouds have helped to protect the planet's secrets, leaving many questions about Jupiter unanswered. 

Mission Juno photos set to a soundscape of strings and horns by Sean Doran and colourist Gerald Eichstädt.

Jupiter's Unanswered Questions

The basic story of the planet's origin has been pieced together by the scientific community, but critical questions remain.

One of the questions the mission seeks to answer is "Exactly, how early in the formation of our universe was Jupiter born?"

Two theories exists for Jupiter's formation: 1) It was formed at its current orbit and 2) Jupiter formed much further from the sun before migrating inwards. The existing theories make different predictions about the size and mass of the planet's core.

Another, "How deep do Jupiter's colorful zones, belts and other features penetrate?"

Juno is determining the planet's structure and motions of its atmosphere before the cloud tops for the first time.

Juno looks to improve understanding of the aurora phenomenon occurring at Jupiter's poles.

Images of Jupiter's northern aurora captured on December 11th, 2016 by Juno.  Colors capture intensity. Credit: G. Randy Gladstone (right image) and co-author Bertrand Bonfond (left image)

Also for the first time ever, Mission Juno sampled the magnetic fields near the planet's poles, while observing the auroras in ultraviolet light that's created by extraordinary levels of energy crashing into the polar regions. 

Juno's discoveries have challenged the scientific community 

Results from the mission challenge researcher's understanding about the planet's giant gas. Two previous undiscovered poles were discovered, with massive cyclones spreading 870 miles wide. 

The general theme of our discoveries is really how different Jupiter looked from how we expected. We thought it was uniform inside and relatively boring. What we’re finding is anything but that. It’s very complex.
— Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio (CNN)

The Findings from Juno (So far)

  • Images provided by JunoCams show both of Jupiter's poles covered in swirling storms that are earth-sized and densely cluttered
  • Jupiter's north pole looks nothing like the south pole
  • The planet's iconic belt close to the equator penetrates "all the way down"
  • Juno's magnetometer investigation (MAG) shows Jupiter's magnetic field is far stronger than expected, surpassing 7.766 Gauss at about 10 times the strongest magnetic field on earth

Read more on the results here.

Photos from Mission Juno

Three of the white oval storms known as the "String of Pearls" are visible near the top of the image. Each of the alternating light and dark atmospheric bands in this image is wider than Earth, and each rages around Jupiter at hundreds of miles (kilometers) per hour. The lighter areas are regions where gas is rising, and the darker bands are regions where gas is sinking.  NASA

Storms at Jupiter's southern pole. Taken from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

Learn more about Mission Juno & Jupiter

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